Ethiopia & The Hardest Day.
I crossed the bridge at Moyale into Ethiopia in the late afternoon after 14 hours on the road, and parked my car at the customs compound. I found the immigration office on the other side of the road but it was empty, not a single official to be found. The place was abandoned. Eventually an official was summoned who invited me to hurry up and wait as he got ready to stamp my passport. He interrogated me about my reasons for being in Ethiopia, apparently it’s become very uncommon for travellers to use this border since the Nairobi Embassy stopped issuing visas. After a long wait he stamped me in and let me go. I made my way back to the customs compound where I was told that they were now closed, and I had to return at 8am in the morning, and “oh, you must leave your car here”. So I had to find somewhere to spend the night within walking distance of the customs compound, which didn’t leave me a whole lot of choice.
I found the only hotel nearby, which was behind the immigration building. It was built around a small bar where locals listened to (awful) loud music late into the night. The room was filthy and I set up my mattress and sleeping bag in the corner of the room after finding bugs on the bed. The hotel advertised their “running water and shower” but in truth none of it worked. I was covered in dust and dirt from the long drive, so I bought a bottle of water from the bar to brush my teeth and clean up a little. After a while in the awful hotel (probably a brothel) a guy came to the door and introduced himself to me as a tour guide. His name was, something, I can’t remember but he wanted to show me the best restaurants in Moyale and I was starving. We walked up the road to a dark building and found a table inside. I was taking in the flyblown goat carcasses hanging in the corner as he asked “Are you a vegetarian?” Yes, at this point I was. So we found another place where I got some pasta and he got something revolting but traditional. I paid, of course, white people prices too. The whole time he tried to sell me tours while I tried to figure out why the hell I had agreed to leave my
hovel hotel in the first place. I eventually shook him off and returned to my room and locked the door, and refused to open it to anyone until the morning, many people came looking for the white man in the night. In the middle of the night I was struck by food poisoning for the 2nd time on my trip and I had an awful night’s rest. In retrospect it would have been wise to stay the night on the Kenyan side. In the morning I made my way back to the customs compound, my car was unharmed, thankfully.
The officials did their thing, and while they processed everything I watched the millions upon millions of spiders that live on the upper walls of ceilings of the customs building, like a great creeping fungus. Once everything was done I was excited to get back onto the “good tar” roads that I had heard about. While I was getting ready to leave, the immigration officer (the one who had made me wait for no reason the previous afternoon) found me and asked if I would take his friend to Addis Ababa, which was 750 kilometres away. I stood there, next to my tiny car crammed full of luggage, trying to figure out a polite way to say no to this huge request. At first I said no, because the car was too small and I had too much luggage, but that did not satisfy them. Then I told them that the car was uncomfortable and he would be irritated and they still insisted. Eventually I asked if he’d pay for petrol and they complained that it was totally unreasonable and I left alone. Thank god. The truth was, that after dealing with Ethiopian officials in three different countries I’d rather have a puff adder in my car than anyone who works for the Ethiopian Government.
I was glad to leave Moyale, and the road heading north seemed to be new and smooth. Apart from the constant police checkpoints the morning’s drive went well. The scenery was nice to look at and the roads were pretty quiet so I made good time to Yabelo, 200 kilometres to the north . In the south of the country it is dry and arid, as well as sparsely populated.
I hadn’t found anywhere to buy fuel since I had been in Marsabit, and my main tank was running low by the time I reached Yabelo. I tried two different fuel stations in town, but nobody had any supply. I changed over to the long-range tank, which held 60 litres, and pressed onwards towards Awassa.
The scenery improved greatly as I moved north. The Ethiopian countryside really is lovely to look at. At points it’s so distinct and unique, unlike any place I’ve ever been. I stopped in a clearing in the woods to take a few photographs and have a break, while I watched the rain move slowly across the landscape. It was so different to the desert I had crossed the previous day. The rain continued on and off for the rest of the day.
Not far north of Yabelo the tar road came to an abrupt end. I continued on the muddy, gravel track where the tar had been removed. I figured it couldn’t go on for too long, and the car seemed to handle it well. It rattled and shook a bit but mostly it was fine.
The further north I drove the more populated the surroundings became. Soon I was driving along in a constant stream of livestock and people. The police checkpoints became more frequent too. Often the police would tell me blatant lies to try to get a bribe out of me, such as “It’s illegal to drive with your lights on during the day, even if it’s raining” or that I can’t drive in Ethiopia without an Ethiopian driver’s license, which you can only get if you live in Ethiopia.
The gravel road ended and the tar picked up again, but I soon wished it hadn’t. The old tar road had been left to decay until it was more of an obstacle than anything else. Between Finchawa and Dilla the road deteriorated to an astonishing degree. The road surface was more pothole than road, and they were deep, sharp-edged wheel killers too.
I had never thought, when I built the car, that a road could ever be that bad. I didn’t think it was possible to let a road get to a point where even Land Cruisers were weaving around and crawling through potholes in first gear. I was worried that the shock absorbers would punch through their mountings, or that the front wishbones would pull away from the crossmember.
The bad road continued. There was no fuel to be found anywhere and every time I stopped I was swamped by people and children screaming “you you you you” at me, which becomes very annoying after the first hour.
I arrived in Dilla, which was a fairly large town, at about 4pm. Here I was able to get fuel and I was certain that I could continue on to Awassa. After all, Dilla was a big town, how could there not be a decent road heading to Awassa? But it continued, in fact it got worse. As I left Dilla the road became a construction site and I had to change between ruined tar and rocky clearings. The number of people alongside the road soared. I was driving down a stream of people on a horrible, wrecked surface, while trucks and busses bounced passed.
It was only 85 kilometres to Awassa from Dilla but it became dark before I even got close. I continued on the wrecked road, with people everywhere, with oncoming traffic blinding me with full beam lights, or lights at all. People continued to shout at me as I slowly made my way down the road. Children would scream “you you you” and occasionally flick stones at my car. Teenagers would approach and shout “Give me money!” or “Fuck you!” and laugh with their friends as they did. The police checkpoints continued as well and the police here were corrupt, asking for “gifts”.
I was determined not to stop. I arrived in Awassa between 11pm and midnight. I had been on the road for more than 16 hours, I was sick, I was exhausted. I had spent the day abusing my car, being sworn at, being screamed at, and being lied to. I found the nicest hotel in town and collapsed on the bed after a hot shower, my first since Nairobi. I wanted to be back in Kenya more than anything. It was an awful shock to go from a country where everyone had been so sweet to me, to a country where I was treated with unveiled and open hostility. But now I had no choice but to keep going, there was no way I was going to head back down that road again.